“[Ornette Coleman’s] brought a thing in—it’s not new,” commented Charles Mingus in a 1960 issue of Down Beat. “It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally.” His pithy assessment remains definitive. Albert Ayler’s records arguably pushed free jazz further out by overcomplicating the standard songbook with highly dramatic, concrète passages, but Coleman’s blues-oriented experiments were more idiomatically inventive. While Ayler’s intuitive improvisations aimed for squealing unearthliness, Coleman’s saxophone runs dared to acknowledge the rules they pranked. His flagrantly out-of-step anti-bebop, best represented on early 1960s tracks like “Beauty Is a Rare Thing” and “Peace,” built an idioglossia out of well-timed technical deficiencies; these ostensible “errors,” layered polyrhythmically, collapsed jazz backward toward its primitive, tribal roots. Coleman, then, didn’t unshackle jazz so much as crack it open and squeeze the yolk (African swing rhythms), the white (Delta blues inflection), and the shell (bandstand instrumentation) through his fist.
Coleman continued to evolve throughout his career, and in the 1970s eventually fell into North African mysticism and third stream fusion. Though not arguably his most fecund phase, this is perhaps his best documented, as evidenced by the 1985 film Ornette: Made in America; director and editor Shirley Clarke modulates back and forth across the decade using a surprising wealth of archival footage, as well as newly shot material of Coleman performing his symphonic piece “Skies of America” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. (These segments alone are valuable for Coleman aficionados, as they capture an authoritative performance of the work; though written as a “conversation” between an orchestra and a jazz ensemble, legal complicated forced Coleman to alter his vision for the LP’s release.)
Presumably attempting something along the lines of Coleman’s own “organized disorganization,” a term that could easily refer to her own, early urban theater films, Clarke’s portraiture eschews cohesive biography and often spirals off into lyrical dissonance; Coleman’s soundtrack, meanwhile, becomes a trail of sonic breadcrumbs with which her steps can be retraced. One could do much worse for a narrative foundation than propulsive concert recordings of Coleman and his 1970s backing group, but Clarke’s flimsy abstract flourishes seldom achieve the nuance and density of Coleman’s playing. During particularly heated performances, the screen erupts in a spasmodic flurry of crosscuts; this technique is likely meant as homage to Coleman’s sax ululations, but its aggressive repetitiveness seems to mock his dexterity. In other, dream-like episodes, a little boy representing “Young Ornette” wanders across railroad tracks to escape the poverty of central Texas in video arcades; Coleman’s forward-thinking album titles notwithstanding, these anachronisms distance us from the central musicians and their story.
Coleman himself, however, proves equally enigmatic here, nearly impenetrable. Though vortically emotional when speaking through his horn, his affable offstage demeanor rarely falters, even when he recounts being attacked with a hammer in the basement of his NYC apartment. Clarke tries to dress up his studious grin and Daffy Duck lisp, but often misinterprets his futuristic musical philosophy into silly pageantry; in the ridiculous “space opera” climax, Coleman lurches in and out of a chroma-keyed star-scape while wrapped in a suit made of foil. Not all of the techniques are quite so garish: She riffs off of Coleman’s relationship with the work of Buckminster Fuller by staging a string ensemble performance within in a geodesic dome at magic hour. But Clarke’s experimentation fails often enough for one to wonder if jazz’s spontaneous essence simply can’t be translated into an art form as necessarily meticulous as film.